With the growing mainstream popularity of the Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii entertainment systems, their presence and impact in home media design and integration cannot be ignored. In fact, one of the most effective additions to any home theater or media room is the inclusion of a video game system. Unfortunately, the impressive abilities of these systems are often diminished. The current generation of video game systems have broken the traditional mold of "just playing video games". They are no longer "just for kids." They have burst upon the multimedia entertainment scene wielding scintillating High Definition graphics and video in concert with dynamic Digital Audio. Digital entertainment technology has and continues to evolve and to simply plug your system into any old input that happens to be available prevents you from getting a truly fulfilling return on the investment you have made in your purchase. Let's look at some features that should be exploited whenever possible, as well as some things to keep in mind when designing your home theater or media room.
The two most important aspects of any home theater are video and sound. They are also the foundation for a fully immersive experience with your new gaming entertainment system. All three systems are capable of outputting High Definition video. The Wii supports a 480p resolution over component video with the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 utilizing HDMI to produce a blazing 1080p resolution. (It is worth noting that older versions of the Xbox 360 do not have HDMI support but do output 1080p over component.) In addition the Sony Playstation 3 plays dual roles as it also ranks as the most popular, efficient, and affordably priced Blu-Ray players available. There is a huge difference in video quality when using a proper HD connection as opposed to a connection that only allows you to utilize standard definition.
The same applies to audio in regard to comparing a digital audio connection to a regular analog stereo connection. Both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 support digital audio via an optical audio jack also known as a TOS-Link connection. This provides you with 5.1 surround sound for all content coming from either system. There is absolutely no comparison to using these systems with 5.1 surround sound as opposed to without. The combination of these two enhancements provides a drastically improved performance. When taking advantage of these high end digital audio and video connections you are transcending from just playing a video game to creating an immersive audio and visual environment that now becomes an experience. Think for a moment of a driving scenario and visualize the reflective paint on every car, the shine of the wet street and blur of neon lights as you feel the sound of the rumbling engine, hit the turbo, and hear the air rushing past you with each car you narrowly miss. All this leads to the jarring sounds of metal twisting and glass shattering around you as you failed to negotiate a suicidal turn. This is not an over the top exaggeration but actually an accurate description of Burnout Paradise, a racing game currently available for both Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. And without the proper connections, it is what you are missing. Not exploiting these digital connections is comparative to having the High Definition audio and video content of a Blue-Ray movie but using connections that give you the playback quality of a VHS tape.
In addition, these systems should also be on your home network with a reliable connection to the Internet. All three have the ability to connect to your network either by a wired or wireless connection. Please note the Xbox 360 would require the purchase of a wireless adapter for wireless connectivity. This connection is vital as these systems and many of their games require regular updates that consistently expand and improve their capabilities. A reliable internet connection is also needed for online play which is a major feature of all these systems. Online play is free for the Playstation 3 and Wii and a small subscription fee is required for the Xbox 360 (less than $10/month). Being able to play with people around the word is an amazing feature. In addition, they both have an "online marketplace" where you can purchase and download new game content, demos, trailers, as well as full games. But these are not the only benefits of being online. This is where we go beyond "just playing video games".
The Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 really expand upon their capabilities when it comes to their online features. Much like the VUDU box I spoke of last month, both systems allow you to purchase video content in their online marketplaces. This content includes feature films, television series, music videos, trailers, as well as other video content. Video content is available in standard definition with a growing number available in HD as well. Some content is free while movies and TV shows have a rental or purchase fee associated with them. Your network connection speed will dictate how quickly you can start viewing your selection. This is a very prominent feature for both systems that continues to evolve as digital media is embraced more and more by the television networks and movie studios...
Once connected to your network, both these systems have the ability to access media from your computer, whether it be photo, video, or audio, and bring it right into your media room. This is much more convenient than having to connect your PC to your TV. Some examples of this beneficial application is the ability to display photos or slideshows of a recent vacation or family event right on your main display as well as having the ability to play from your entire music library stored on your computer without having to leaving the room. With many games you can even use a feature called, "Add the Music" on your PC to the game to create a custom soundtrack. Or you can watch a movie you have downloaded or home video you may have stored on your PC. Unique to the Xbox 360 is its ability to be used as a Media Extender for a PC that is running Microsoft Media Center on it. This allows you to utilize all the functionality of the Media Center application via the Xbox 360 and have it displayed on your TV.
There are a few less technology-related points that should be addressed as well. Location, storage, connectivity, and auxiliary jacks are all very pertinent topics that should be discussed sooner rather than later when it comes to your home theater. When it comes to location the first question should be where will your system live? This question has three typical outcomes. First is to have your system as part of your equipment rack, however this comes with its own inherent problems. The controllers for all three systems are wireless. The Playstation 3 and Wii utilize Bluetooth and the Xbox 360 utilizes RF connectivity. Though none require the equipment to be in the line of sight to work, they do have distance limitations so the rack cannot be too far from the viewing area. The Wii has a unique issue in that it utilizes a small Sensor Bar that mounts above or below your TV or screen. The problem is that the wire to connect it to the Wii is only approximately 12' long. Though this does create an issue, there are wireless solutions available. Most importantly, and I absolutely cannot stress this enough, you must have adequate ventilation for these units. The internal temperature of some of these units has been observed exceeding 100° F. Whether it is in a rack or a cabinet, protect your investment and be sure to provide proper ventilation.
In-wall auxiliary media jacks are often used to connect these systems from a location in the room to the display. These wall plates have audio and video connections on them which run through the walls connecting to either your display or your rack location.. These jacks are not the problems themselves as much as their connections are. If these jacks are to be used successfully, they would need to support an HDMI, component, digital audio, analog audio, and a network connection. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. In addition, using auxiliary media jacks often leads to consoles being repeatedly connected and disconnected to be moved from one room of the house to another. These units have hard drives like a computer and need to be handled carefully. If it is aesthetically acceptable, an in-room storage area is quite convenient.
Last is a unique feature that, at this time, only applies to the Xbox 360. This is the systems ability to be controllable via IR. What that means is that it can be controlled by a universal remote control or more importantly a control processing unit. This will allow your Xbox to be controlled by your AV system. Because of this feature, the Xbox 360 can now be a distributed video source throughout your home. The application for this is not intended for the video game aspect of the system as the controller obviously would not function from across a house. This application is geared towards the media sharing capabilities discussed earlier. When properly installed, you can view the previously discussed media content from your PC or any downloaded content stored on your Xbox 360 anywhere on your video distribution system. This now extends all the convenience of this feature throughout your entire house.
The preceding are some key points to consider and will greatly enhance your overall level of entertainment when deciding to add one of these great video entertainment systems to your home theater or media room. Each of these system has its own strengths and weaknesses, and more features than are discussed here, but all are capable of providing a great experience for all ages. The gaming industry is growing, and more and more people are becoming "casual gamers" regardless of their age. As technology advances, these consoles will continue to move towards being a central part of your media experience. Those who will benefit from these advances will be those who can see past the games and embrace the multi-function capabilities of the current and upcoming generations of video game systems.
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